Director: Jeff Nichols

****

This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie

It’s a commonly-held belief that Matthew McConaughey has only just lifted himself out of a cinematic purgatory with a string of great performances in one excellent film after another. However, that’s three fallacies for the price of one. He’s always been a capable performer, full of charisma with side portions of menace or dignity as required. What’s more, there are plenty of little gems scattered throughout his CV. For every Sahara, there’s a Frailty; for every Fool’s Gold there is a Lone Star.

Yet McConaughey has yet to star in a classic that could come to define his career. The closest he’s come thus far is arguably his debut, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. His latest string of winning performances have all been in films that, entertaining and well-made as they may be, are far from their directors’ bests (Friedkin’s Killer Joe, Magic Mike for Steven Soderbergh, reuniting with Linklater on Bernie). Alas, Jeff Nichols’ Mud continues in that vein. It’s compelling viewing on its own terms, but a lot of its cred comes from its leading man. Credit where credit’s due, however, Mud benefits from the efforts of two leading men.

After the solitary paranoia of Michael Shannon’s bug-eyed turn in Take Shelter, Nichols widens his gaze to include two fascinating portraits of male isolation. Ellis (a terrifically steely-eyed Tye Sheridan) is a typical teenager, restlessly looking for adventure in the everyday. One day, he and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) borrow a motorboat and sneak down their local river, a little stream by the name of the Mississippi. This setting alone invokes a certain atmosphere, ripe with clammy air and the scent of whitewash from a Mark Twain novel. They head for an island down river where they discover a boat washed up into the trees from a flood years before. This is the point where Tom Sawyer becomes a little too obvious as an influence, with our own Tom and Huck Finn on the Mississippi. The film’s version of Injun Joe goes only by the monicker of Mud (McConaughey), a stranger who’s living in the boy’s boat when they discover it. With a past as murky as the waters surrounding the island, Ellis is fascinated by Mud, to the point that he agrees to help Mud out. Anyone on the run from the law needs all the help he can get.

As the latest chapter of the ‘McConaissance’, Mud sees McConaughey at great ease, with a drawl so low and laid back, it practically reaches his ankles. With a single look, he inspires suspicion yet still maintains a magnetic allure that he’s impossible to ignore. McConaughey makes Mud’s mysteries mythical. Yet, as good as the Texan is, the real star is young Sheridan as Ellis. With a shaky home (Ray McKinnion and Sarah Paulson star as Ellis’ parents) and little to do in the local one-horse town, Ellis could have been a standard mopey teen. Instead, over the course of the film Sheridan’s wide-eyed innocence becomes rigid determination before succumbing to childishness once more. It’s a rich and varied performance from the newcomer; woe betide any studio executive who opts to waste him on a tween-friendly franchise. Sheridan and McConaughey make Mud more than a Twain rip-off, though its myriad influences bleed in repeatedly. When it’s not being Huck Finn 2.0, it feels like a less gritty version of Stand By Me. These are high watermarks that even a talent like Nichols struggles to overcome.

As Mud runs from the law and bounty hunters towards his waiting love (Reese Witherspoon, sober), Mud runs from being southern-fried character study to something more generic by the denouement. The measured pacing of the first two-thirds meanders into gun-toting thriller territory. By that stage, though, Mud has lodged in the memory. To be more precise, McConaughey and Sheridan lodge in the memory, whilst the rest can be taken or left. Mud lacks Take Shelter’s edge but, with a hazy look and feel and winning performances, it works just fine.

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